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Thackeray In Love
“You may marry anybody you please & I don’t care.” Thus the famous English author to wild, pretty Sally Baxter of New York; which is to say that he—and his American love—never got over it at all.
April 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 3
He spent the winter in Rome working on The Newcomes . He was ill most of the time and was glad to escape in the spring to Naples. From there he sent Mrs. Baxter a drawing of the island of Capri—“It is as purple, as purple as the pelisse Miss Baxter used to wear this time last year.” Still hoping to return to America, he asked her, “Shall I come and see you in the fall? Can’t you coax Felt [the sponsor of his 1852 lectures in New York] to make me an offer?” Later on in the year he learned that the secretaryship of the British Legation in Washington was vacant and in- stantly applied for it. Nothing came of these efforts; but in 1855 he did receive an attractive offer to lecture, and that summer he was making plans to go to the United States in late October to deliver a series of lectures on the Hanoverian kings, “The Four Georges.” With the eagerness of a boy he wrote the Baxters urging them to meet him in Boston and proposing that they all take a trip to Niagara before going on to New York.
The Baxters met him in Boston with the news that Sally was going to be married on December 12 to Frank Hampton, a young South Carolinian.
She had made a journey south in the spring of 1854 to recuperate from her illness and had returned the next spring to visit the family of Langdon Cheves (a noted senator in his youth) at their plantation, Lang Syne, near Columbia, South Carolina. Down she went along an avenue of live oaks in a big carriage drawn by four mules, passing fertile cottonfields and the wellkept slave quarters—a little whitewashed village from which the Negroes rushed out to welcome their mistress with a warmth of affection that no northerner could believe, Sally thought, without seeing it. From the moment she arrived, stepping down from the carriage before a big columned house of astonishing beauty and charm, she was enchanted by plantation life, so leisurely, so unostentatious, and yet so luxuriously comfortable after the bustle of New York.
Frank Hampton and his family were magnificent specimens of the sort of human beings that this way of life could produce. His father, Colonel Wade Hampton, son of one of the richest men in America, owner of the great Millwood Plantation near Columbia and vast cotton plantations in the Deep South, had been a hero of the War of 1812; Frank’s brother Wade was to become a famous general in the Civil War. Like all the Hampton men, Frank was big and strikingly handsome, a noted sportsman, yet with a gentleness and consideration in his manner toward women that Sally found irresistible. He worshipped her.
Thackeray was stunned by the news of the engagement. He took the marriage hard. Lecturing in Boston when the time approached, he refused the Baxters’ invitation to come down to New York for the wedding, claiming his busy lecture schedule and (untruthfully) that he was suffering from chills and fever. On the day of the wedding he took to his bed with what he called an attack of spasms and lay there two days, reading a biography of Goethe, pondering on Goethe’s unhappy attachment at seventyfive for a schoolgirl, and relieving his feelings by writing an ill-tempered letter about Sally to his daughters: Sally Baxter’s marriage went off very smartly on the 12th & I hope she will get over her passion for an old fogey who shall be nameless—It began to be a newsance at last to the old party, & very likely to the young one. My girls I suppose must undergo the common lot; but I hope they wont Sallify—Indulge in amours de tête I mean. …
The second lecture tour was not as successful as the first. Thackeray was lionized as before; he made money; but the newspapers were more critical than they had been in 1852. He himself was tired and ill, and this time the oddities of American life oppressed rather than amused him. He saw little of the Baxters. Mrs. Baxter urged him to write to Sally but he replied that he couldn’t—“there’s a something between us.”
He saw her briefly in Charleston when he went there to lecture in February, and met Frank Hampton, whom he thought a fine fellow, “a grand seigneur in these parts … good looking burly honest not a literairy cove.” Sally was more beautiful than ever in a blue ball gown with magnificent lace. Just before sailing for home from New York in May, he relented and sent her a belated wedding present from Tiffany’s—a silver tea set with “a pretty little sulky tea-pot” and a message, “God bless her and all her belongings.”
On Christmas Day of 1860, a bitter cold day in London, but a day as always of memories and sentimentalities, Thackeray’s thoughts were with the Baxters. He had heard alarming reports from America that the southern states were going to secede and asked anxiously, “Aren’t you in a fright at the separation?”